Like many people my age, I have distinct memories of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. As a child, I can recall hearing my parents laughing at his monologues after I’d gone to bed, the sound of their laughter lulling me to sleep. In my teens, I would sometimes stay up late, studying or otherwise, and catch the opening of the show and the first guest. Carson was always in control, the smoothest man on television. Everyone wanted to impress Johnny or make him laugh. It was obvious that he was adored and revered by everyone,whether is was his erstwhile sidekick, Ed McMahon, the outrageously dressed bandleader, Doc Severinsen, or the parade of stars who appeared on his couch every weeknight at 11:30 PM.
My last memories of Johnny came in the early 1990′s when he appeared to be out of touch with the times. Still in top form as a host, I saw him interview guests and appear to have little clue who they were or why they were on his show. I can recall Morrissey on the show as a musical guest and Carson, along with his guest, Bill Cosby, share an incredulous look as to why the teenage L.A. audience that night shrieked every time he mentioned Morrissey’s name. Carson retired in 1992, still a dominant force on television, still the place to be if you wanted to make a name for yourself. He went out on top and then he disappeared from the limelight.
For anyone who never saw Carson in his prime, especially people who were born into a television landscape with four or five late night talk show hosts, they may wonder what the big deal is about this one man. So what? He interviewed people and put on some skits- Leterman, Leno and Conan all do that. Hell, even Arsenio Hall was doing it before his show went off the air. What they don’t understand is that for 30 years, Carson was the only one. He was the destination place for actors, musicians and people with interesting lives to appear before the nation. For stand-up comedians especially, appearing on Carson and making the man laugh (or even better, having him call you to the couch for an interview) could make a career… the next day. What Jay,Dave, the Jimmy’s and Conan are all doing was perfected by Carson and they’re all indebted to him. That is just one of the points made in this compelling documentary from director Peter Jones, premiering on PBS tonight at 9 PM (check local listings) as a part of the network’s long running series, American Masters.
Carson was a notiriously private man, granting very few interviews in his lifetime (he died in 2005). Jones was granted unprecedented access to the late TV star’s personal and professional archives, including family photo albums, home movies, memorabilia and all existing episodes of Carson’s Tonight Show from 1962 until his retirement. He and his staff culled through over 4,000 episodes to compile a portrait of an enigma. While showing his brilliant talent as an entertainer, Jones also shows the complex personal life of Carson, warts and all. When he wasn’t on camera, Carson was a known womanizer, was married four times, had a distant relationship with his three sons (from his first wide), struggled with alcohol, and could seem aloof and cold. In what seems like an age old tale of Hollywood, Carson longed for the approval of his mother, whom he adored, yet she never paid him a compliment, even at the height of his success. Carson chose to let his work speak for itself and Jones found the clues to Carson’s life in the hours of footage when Carson was quite revealing about himself on camera.
Besides the great footage from every year of The Tonight Show, as well as clips from Carson’s early forays into television on CBS and ABC, Johnny Carson: King of Late Night also features 45 interviews with performers who appeared on, or began their careers, on The Tonight Show. Included are Severinsen, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles, Bob Newhart and Steve Martin. Joan Rivers appears and discusses her famous falling with Carson after she went to start her own late night talk show. Drew Carey and Garry Shandling both get choked up when discussing Carson and the profound effect he had on their lives.
For anyone who grew up with Johnny, this documentary is like a visit with an old friend. The only thing that would make it better is if PBS were to air it at 11:30 PM. For students of television unfamiliar with Carson’s place in the history of the medium and his rightful place as one of the most important pop culture figures in the 20th Century, Johnny Carson: King of Late Night is the ideal place to start learning about him and how he helped shape the way we watch television.